by Eliza Griswold · March 12, 2018
Lamb is a thirty-three-year-old Marine and former federal prosecutor.
Photograph by Keith Srakocic / AP
Last Monday afternoon, in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate for Congress in a special election, was going door to door, looking for undecided voters. “You guys know which way you’re leaning?” he stopped to ask one woman, a teacher’s aide whose husband worked at the nearby prison. “As of right now, we’re voting for you,” she said. Waynesburg, a town of around four thousand residents near the West Virginia border, was a must-win, and this household was typical of the town. In Alabama, it was African-American women who turned out to defeat Roy Moore, Lamb said; in Western Pennsylvania, Lamb was counting on robust support from the unions.
Some people took a while to open their doors. Lamb is a thirty-three-year-old marine and former federal prosecutor. He is so wholesome-looking that he is frequently mistaken for a Jehovah’s Witness. “One man called out, ‘I’m a Roman Catholic!’ ” Lamb told me. He’d replied, “So am I.” He grew up in the northern part of the PA-18 district, in the more affluent suburb of Mount Lebanon, and was shaped by years at Central Catholic, a high school run by Christian Brothers, an order within the Catholic Church that takes a vow of poverty. “They really make an effort to go out and be with people on the margins,” he told me.
As Lamb made his way through Waynesburg, a member of his team—a fellow-marine with a buzz cut and a puffy coat—walked ahead, calling out the residents’ names from a clipboard. “It’s going to be a turnout battle,” Lamb said. He knocked on the screen door of a modest house, reminding the woman who stood at the door of the election on Tuesday to replace the Republican representative, Tim Murphy. Murphy stepped down last October, after the news broke that he reportedly urged a mistress to have an abortion, despite his pro-life platform.
In 2016, Trump won PA-18 by nineteen points, and so it might seem surprising that Lamb holds a slim lead over the Republican state representative Rick Saccone, who is best known for his legislative effort to have the motto “In God We Trust” featured more visibly in Pennsylvania’s public schools. More surprising, polls last Monday showed that Lamb was neck-and-neck with Saccone in two rural counties, Washington and Greene, which had voted for Donald Trump by a margin of at least twenty-five points. Outsiders like to see Lamb’s success as the beginning of rural, white America’s referendum on Trump, which, many hope, will continue the pushback that began in Alabama and Virginia, and which will sweep the nation in November. Yet up close the special election in PA-18 looks more complicated. Many of the people who will vote for Lamb are Trump voters who still support the President. Lamb, in his conversations on doorsteps, assiduously avoids talking about national politics. “I don’t ask them what they think of the leadership of my party,” he said. “I just say, usually, ‘Look, I’m a Democrat because my grandfather was a Democrat, and he was because F.D.R. was.’ ”
Lamb has benefitted from a ready army of volunteers from the network of pop-up resistance groups that formed after Trump’s election. Mykie Reidy, who previously organized protests outside Murphy’s office, now leads Progress 18, a group with about six hundred active members who support Lamb—with reservations. “I don’t agree with him on a number of issues, but I like him anyway,” Reidy told me on the phone. In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, she and Lamb’s other liberal supporters, most of whom live in the Pittsburgh suburbs to the north of the district, wanted to hear him call for a ban on bump stocks, or an increase in the minimum age to buy assault rifles, or a ban on AR-15s. Lamb has done none of this. Similarly, his support of the district’s dwindling coal industry, and of shale gas, is troubling to those who believe that the United States should move away from fossil fuels. “Do I agree with him about fracking? I do not,” Reidy said.
For the past seven years, I’ve reported from Washington County, an area hit hard by the collapse of the steel industry and more recently by the slow death of coal. In the wake of these industries, deep drilling for natural gas has created revenue that has helped to keep hotels and diners and chainsaw-repair shops, among many other small businesses, afloat. The influx of money has also further divided the residents of small, rural communities, separating the larger landowners who are earning money from gas operations from those who see little benefit.
If elected, Lamb will have to reconcile the local realities of a district that stretches from Appalachia in the south to wealthy liberal Pittsburgh suburbs in the north, as well as navigate a polarized national landscape that will put pressure on his conservative views about energy and guns. Last week, however, he was focussed solely on winning. It made sense for Pam Snyder, a Democratic state representative in southwestern Pennsylvania, whose family is the fifth generation to live on their farm in a nearby county, to join in his campaign; like Lamb, she is pro-Second Amendment, and has a pragmatic stance on coal and natural gas. When she was first elected, five and a half years ago, she was one of nine Democrats in the state chamber from this part of the state. In 2016, she was the only one to win reëlection.
In Lamb, Snyder said, she saw the next generation of Democratic leaders. “You gotta bring it to the middle,” she said. “The gridlock, people are sick of it.”
But Lamb’s ability to find common ground has also left him vulnerable to Republicans who call him “two-faced.” A devout Catholic, Lamb is personally pro-life but politically pro-choice. A Marine Captain who served as a prosecutor in Okinawa, he is ardently pro-Second Amendment—one of his campaign videos features a clip of him firing an AR-15—and yet, as a former federal prosecutor who has dealt with the mayhem caused by armed criminals, he’s campaigning to strengthen background checks. More superficially, he’s a vocal advocate for the coal industry and for natural gas who has a worm farm in his kitchen and grows potatoes in his garden.
In 2013, Lamb returned to Pittsburgh to work as a federal prosecutor after clerking for a federal judge in New York. The region lay at the center of the opioid crisis, and Lamb, who was assigned to the violent crimes unit, saw its ravages firsthand. “This is a place where people work with their hands, in coal mines and steel mills and natural-gas fields and they get hurt on the job,” he told me of Washington County. “A lot of people play high-school football.” He stressed the role of the federal government in paying for enough beds in ninety-day treatment centers to keep people alive. “For us that’s an intellectual position, yes,” he said, about the lack of beds. “But if you sit across from a parent who’s lost a son, it’s an injustice.” Lamb particularly resists the notion that drug abuse is a result of immigration. In his second debate against Saccone, in response to a question about Trump’s proposed border wall, Lamb reminded his audience that, in the U.S., “the No. 1 entry point for fentanyl is J.F.K. Airport.”
Given the national stakes, the race has turned ugly. On Saturday night, Trump arrived in Moon Township to rally Saccone voters and, touting an idea he said he claimed was inspired by the Chinese President Xi Jinping, called for drug dealers to face the death penalty. The proposal shored up the anti-Lamb argument, perpetuated in ten million dollars’ worth of negative ads, that the young former federal prosecutor has negotiated plea bargains with drug dealers and is soft on crime. In one advertisement, a boy sits weeping before a coffin that presumably belongs to a victim of the bad guys whom Lamb has done nothing to punish. Another features Lamb as Nancy Pelosi’s cartoon sheep. Lamb’s sister, Sarah, who teaches third grade at a Catholic school, told me that her students had seen the ad. “Ms. Lamb, that’s bullying,” they’d told her. In the southern and mostly rural part of his district, where Trump found the strongest support, residents have been complaining of receiving more than a dozen anti-Lamb flyers a day.
If elected, Lamb will have to reconcile the local realities of a district that stretches from Appalachia in the south to wealthy liberal Pittsburgh suburbs in the north.
Photograph by Maranie Staab / Reuters
A couple of days after I followed Lamb in Waynesburg, I met Jason Clark, the president of the Washington County Pork Association, whom I had first met at the Washington County Fair in 2016, when he was showing his prize-winning pigs. A snowstorm was picking up, but he took me to see his two pregnant sows, one of which he hoped was about to give birth. A large man with a bushy brown beard, Clark gave me plastic bootees to wear over my shoes. “I spend more time with these pigs than I do with my kids,” he said gently, as he squatted among a six-week-old litter and the timid piglets gnawed at his jeans.
We sat in his white truck with a bumper sticker that read “Four Americans Died While Hillary Lied” as the snow whirled around us and he explained why he would never vote for Lamb. “A lot has happened since you were last here,” he said. His brother was suffering from an addiction. “No one is accountable in this country,” he said. “In my eyes, drug dealers are murderers. The products they’re pushing are killing people.”
Last week, when I drove through Greene County, which Trump won handily, I noticed flocks of blue and white Lamb road signs among signs advertising vape shops and a local Mace dealer, and 800 numbers for the sale of oil, gas, and mineral rights. The next day, I passed more signs lining rural back roads as I drove to a warehouse that smelled of fresh sawdust. Hundreds of local union members were waiting for Lamb to appear with Joe Biden, the one national Democratic leader who is still liked in Pennsylvania, in no small part because he comes from Scranton.
Kevin Hallam, a representative of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said that he was concerned above all with the Republicans’ concerted attack on unions; Saccone has a record of voting against organized labor. Hallam grew up in Homestead, a struggling Pittsburgh suburb once considered the steel capital of the world; he recalled, as a child, watching the snow turning gray as it fell. His great-grandfather took part in the famous Homestead Strike of 1892, and Hallam’s own union had recently helped organize Uber drivers in New York City and lobstermen in Maine. As the recent teachers’ strike next door in West Virginia was ending, and a Right to Work case, Janus v. AFSCME, was currently before the Supreme Court, the question of preserving unions nationwide was particularly pressing.
“This isn’t a referendum on Trump,” Hallam said, explaining that it was about work and health care and wages, and that Lamb’s opponent stood on the wrong side of all of these issues.
Rick Grejda, a local leader of the Service Employees International Union, told me that social issues paled in comparison to the economic ones that union members and others face. “It’s hard to say you’re in the middle class if you work two jobs,” he told me. “We’re not this bunch of liberal lefties.”
Up on the plywood dais, Biden told the story of winning office at the age of twenty-nine with the help of the labor union. His father was an educator, not a laborer, he said, but Biden’s roots were among people like this. “To hear Barack tell it, I crawled out of a coal mine with a lunch bucket.” The audience roared. Biden’s poking mild fun at his old boss, squarely locating Obama within the liberal élite, served a purpose; this isn’t what being a Democrat meant here, where all people wanted was a government that looked out for working people. “You want a decent sidewalk, hell, you own the sidewalk. You built the sidewalk,” Biden went on. Now even fast-food workers had to sign non-compete clauses, he said.
“That ain’t right!” a man called from the crowd.
Biden called “the right to work”—the phrase used to justify anti-union laws in the South and elsewhere—“the right to steal your job.” The men cheered again.
Biden told the union members that, in Lamb, he saw his late son, Beau, a veteran and federal prosecutor who died of brain cancer in 2015. “Conor has been a man of character since he was a kid,” he said. “It’s in his blood.”
Three days before the speech in which Trump would call him “Lamb the Sham,” Lamb arrived at his office in the town of Washington, the seat of Washington County, in a former bank that was also used by Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign in 2016. A staffer who’d run the Clinton office and now operated Lamb’s told me that the two campaigns couldn’t have been more different. Clinton had virtually no presence in the area, he said, adding, “That’s pretty much why rural America kicked our butts.” There was a large tub of pretzels and a bag of gummy bears on one table, and a stuffed-animal sheep on another atop a stack of flyers. An older man was answering calls from potential voters and, as I passed by, I heard him explain that Lamb did not support a gun ban.
Lamb looked oddly vibrant, with rosy cheeks. I asked whether he would see a victory as part of a wider national pushback against Trump. “I’m skeptical about it,” he said. He sounded genuine, but his stance was also savvy. The people he was still working to reach wanted no part of a “blue wave” that had passed them by so many times before. They wanted to know that Lamb meant it when he said he was willing to buck the national Democratic Party on the issues that mattered to them. Part of what many had liked about Trump was his willingness to go it alone. Lamb simply had to prove that he was more of the same.
The New Yorker · by Eliza Griswold · March 12, 2018